What the Permanent Secretary said

Whichever way it is twisted and turned, what the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, Mr Nigel Dharamlall was recorded as saying at a meeting last week of Toshaos and Community Support Officers (CSOs) at the Guyana International Conference Centre (GICC) must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

Both he and the Minister of Amerindian Affairs, Mrs Pauline Sukhai, who was present when the statements were made in strident language and tones, should be censured and President Ramotar should ask for a full report on the event from all concerned and decide what further steps should be taken to excise this type of bullying behaviour of the First Peoples.

During his presentation, which seemed to be mostly consumed by ensuring that the government was given all the credit for Community Development Projects (CDPs) in Amerindian villages, Mr Dharamlall was recorded as saying in part: “The LCDS [Low Carbon Development Strategy] is the Government of Guyana… the people of Guyana… I don’t want any single one of you to ever again—and I keep saying this over and over—any CSO [Community Support Officer] who says they are working on the UNDP project called the CDP I want you off the CSO project”.

He went on to say “…Any Toshao or senior councillor who represents to any village that the CDP is a UNDP project, you don’t have access to my office. I’m coming hard line on people who don’t see a future and who don’t want to be part of the development of the country. How many of you think the CSO project is for employment?” After he got no response from his audience, he continued: “None of you feel so? So we should stop paying you the stipend?”

One might expect the political appointee, the Minister of Amerindian Affairs to agitate in the partisan and acrimonious manner that Mr Dharamlall did. For Mr Dharamlall, however, there are certain codes of conduct, written and unwritten, which guide how civil servants such as the permanent secretary should conduct themselves in relation to public business. Then again, the PPP/C has radically effaced those boundary lines by allowing some of its key supporters to cross back and forth between political platforms and high civil service positions such as the post of permanent secretary. Mr Dharamlall’s behaviour accorded more with someone on the pulpit rather than the top civil servant addressing policy and administrative matters.

As the most senior civil servant in the ministry it is completely out of order for the Permanent Secretary to suggest that access to his office would be denied if the CDPs were not represented in a certain way. It may be that the multi-donor nature of many of these projects has created the perception in the minds of Amerindian leaders that these projects are not solely the Government of Guyana’s and thus they may have created their own nomenclature to describe it. That can hardly be a reason to talk down to them and use threatening language.

His statement “I’m coming hard line on people who don’t see a future and who don’t want to be part of the development of the country” is ominous and will no doubt reverberate within the Amerindian communities which feel vulnerable and are aware that the government has a significant say in subventions and project allocations to villages and can use this in a retributive manner.

The harsh words of Mr Dharamlall are redolent of two deeper problems that have characterized PPP/C administrations: the government’s unrelenting channeling of resources to communities for electoral gain and the decades-old paternalistic countenance of the centre in relation to Amerindian communities. The meeting at the GICC preceded a demonstration outside of Parliament, in which Mr Dharamlall himself was a vocal participant, against opposition cuts to the Amerindian Development Fund (ADF) in this year’s budget. Mrs Sukhai herself is heard on the recording as saying that the cuts to the ADF were “planned and wicked” and an attempt to “punish the people.” She urged those gathered to stand up for themselves and raise their voices against “all the wickedness of the opposition. You have to stop them now.”

Taken all together, the remarks made by the two officials were intended to ensure that the government got all the credit for the projects despite the fact that many donors including Norway and the UNDP are putting funds into them and playing other roles. The remarks were also oriented towards ensuring that the government’s programme was signed onto without a hint of dissent and that the village leaders should target the opposition. All of that dovetails into the unremitting campaign by the government to use public funds to sway Amerindian communities. This is evidenced by the streams of handouts to select villages which are not located in an overarching       development plan.

The government is certainly free to invite the Toshaos to hear its side of the budget cuts but it cannot then weave in threats in relation to access to the ministry and broad hints of loss of positions and funding. It will be clear to observers that the hectoring and threatening language of the Permanent Secretary was also intended to mobilise and cajole support for the government outside of Parliament in the face of the budget cuts. The presence of the CSOs with the Toshaos was odd and drives home the concern that the government wanted to turn the screws on those who stood to benefit financially from the ADF by having them toe the political line.

The tone at the meeting was worse than the paternalism that has come to be associated with the administrating of Amerindian communities and the handling of their peoples over decades of pre and post-colonial governance. The message from last week’s meeting was clear: the government’s narrative of events was what the communities must hold onto or else…

The notion of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), whether it may relate to Amerindian communities joining the Norwegian forest initiative or deciding what are the best development options for their villages is really an illusion. It doesn’t exist. The government’s assault on the Amerindian People’s Association at the meeting is also an example of trying to limit the freedom of association and thought by the Amerindian communities.

The Norwegian government and donors and intermediaries like the UNDP and the World Bank will no doubt take notice of the outlook of the administration here. Its intent to corral the leaders is on show each time the National Toshaos Council meets in Georgetown. Then, the concept of FPIC is shredded to pieces. The toshaos’ meeting is carefully managed and scripted. The free media are barred from attending the meetings and there are even attempts by some Amerindian “leaders” at preventing the toshaos from freely speaking to the media. Last week’s meeting was also held in the absence of the free media and were it not for a surreptitious recording, the public would have been none the wiser of what had transpired. One presumes that the government’s reflexive action will be conduct searches on attendees at these meetings in the future or to ban electronic devices at these gatherings. Our considered advice to the government would be to go in the opposition direction: throw open the doors of the meetings and let all thoughts contend. There should be nothing to hide.

A substantially revamped Amerindian Act, bringing it in line with contemporary standards, will not deliver much to Amerindian communities if government officials like Mr Dharamlall don’t accord the respect that must be shown.

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